With 24 goals for (GF) through their first eight games, the burgeoning Los Angeles Kings (4-4-0) are on pace to score 246 goals over 82 games, sparking optimism that this young team is on the verge of breaking into the league's upper level. While a sign of this sort is a harbinger for success, the turnaround required to bring the Kings into contention would be steep.
Simply put, let's hold off on the coronation just yet.
The Kings don't realistically have the kind of offensive firepower to sustain this start. If they stayed on pace from their first seven games, they would be comparable to the offense of the 2008-09 Boston Bruins. It is a matter of time until they come down to earth, at least a little bit. Even in their past four games, the Kings haven't scored more than two goals a game.
Still, signs of progress are there, particularly given that the scoring outburst is a far cry from what Kings' fans were conditioned to seeing last season: an anemic 207 GF (third worst in the NHL). Compared to their output in the 2007-08 season, the Kings suffered a drop of 35 relative goals for (RGF). RGF measures a team's goal total against the NHL average during a season. That lens keeps goal totals in perspective over the course of the league's numerous rule changes.
The Kings would need to see an increase of 35 relative goals for this season just to get back to the league average in offense. In the past 10 seasons, from 1998-99 to 2008-09, only 16.2 percent of teams with a negative mark in RGF improved by 35 or more the following season. In line with those odds, Puck Prospectus' VUKOTA projections, which are based on performances of past NHL teams, pegged the fledgling Kings with a modest increase in goals scored, from 207 GF to 223 GF, wary about the prospects of their relatively untested youngsters. Such a history suggests that a rapid ascent is not likely, but it is possible, particularly given the Kings' talented young core.
Undeniably, there is considerable upside for the L.A. Kids to exceed expectations and to elevate themselves into the upper half of NHL teams in scoring -- eventually. On an individual level, we projected C Anze Kopitar -- the 11th overall pick in 2005 NHL entry draft -- to step up to nearly point-per-game production (31 G, 43 A, 74 P) in 2009-10, establishing himself as the Kings' best player. The 22-year-old Slovenian hasn't disappointed in the early going, posting a team-high 11 points in seven games. Former first-round selections LW Alexander Frolov and captain LW Dustin Brown help round out a solid forward core, along with veteran Ryan Smyth. Meanwhile, 2008 second-overall pick D Drew Doughty and 2005 third-overall pick D Jack Johnson give Los Angeles elite potential on the blueline, which may help lift the Kings this season and beyond.
Los Angeles revamped the average age of its squad from 28.0 to 26.0 years old in 2008-09, the largest decrease in the NHL last season, so the lacking offensive output isn't all that surprising. The Kings have managed to maintain their average age at 26.1 in 2009-10 -- tied with the Blue Jackets as the NHL's second youngest team this season, and only fractionally older than the Blackhawks' average age of 25.9 years old.
A further infusion of youth is coming soon, with the potential to make Los Angeles even younger and better. Prospect site Hockey's Future rates Los Angeles as having the NHL's fourth best farm system, with four of the top 50 prospects in the league. Twenty-year-old RW Oscar Moller (No. 32) may be playing in the NHL already, but the Kings' best prospects -- 20-year-old D Thomas Hickey (No. 14), 21-year-old G Jonathan Bernier (No. 22) and 18-year-old C Brayden Schenn (No. 26) -- are still awaiting the call from the big club. This organizational depth makes it likely that the Kings can sustain the ascent that they began at the start of this season.
There have been many cases in the NHL of teams making a significant turnaround in scoring, as the Kings seem poised to do this season, but not all of them can sustain that growth. It is the season following a dramatic increase that can be the most telling of impending success.
Two recent teams followed this template to the Stanley Cup -- the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks. This L.A. roster bears some particularly interesting similarities to the young-blooded Bolts. If this season's Kings were to have a comparable increase as the minus-37 to plus-1 RGF experienced by the 2002-03 Tampa Bay Lightning (Southeast Division winners with an average age of 26.2), Los Angeles could find itself as a championship contender in 2010-11. A further increase from plus-1 to minus-34 RGF, as experienced by the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning, could make the Kings the team to beat in the NHL. At current scoring levels, the Kings should be targeting about 240 GF in 2009-10 and 260-270 GF in 2010-11 to follow the Lightning's blueprint.
The Kings might not be ready to wear the crown this season, but if their offensive progress continues, they will certainly be counted among the top Cup contenders next season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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